The first time I wore body armour I didn’t feel particularly safe. There were too many exposed areas where a hot piece of metal could tear into my fleshy bits. Sure, the hodgepodge collection of ceramic plates and kevlar bought from an Iraqi military market were better than nothing, but if someone was going to start shooting at me I’d feel a lot more comfortable in something a bit more… hefty? Something, I thought, like Ned Kelly’s armour: a homemade but imposing design that had served him so well in the infamous last stand in Glenrowan in 1880. But would I really be safer in a crudely fashioned suit, rather than modern day technology?
Ned’s iconic armour was pretty clever for the time. Held together with bolts and leather strapping, it fully protected his head, while the chest and back plates curled around the flanks, offering decent protection to the torso. The upper arms were protected by two more curled plates, and another hung from the chest plate to protect the groin and upper legs. Each plate was about a half centimetre of thick steel, with some areas a little thicker, made out of mouldboards from ploughs – the curved metal blades that cut into the earth on a horse drawn plough
Shaping the suits in bush forges occupied the gang for most of the 1879-80 summer, and once fully assembled Ned certainly looked imposing. Accounts of the siege at Glenrowan talk of Kelly as a towering figure emerging from the gloom, pistol and rifle rounds bouncing off him from only a few metres away. According to the State Library of Victoria, where Ned’s suit is currently held, it deflected between 15-19 bullets across all the plates before shots to his exposed legs and arms brought him down.
So how would this homemade suit fare against today’s weapons? Tom Corfmat, a collector of historical firearms and weapons enthusiast, points out that ballistics have come a long way since Ned’s time. Much of today’s ammo is jacketed, meaning the slug is wrapped in a harder metal, to increase penetration. The slugs of Kelly’s time, Tom explains, were softer lead.
“Now, as soon as lead hits something hard it will flatten and splatter,” he says. “It doesn’t have the penetration power of what modern ammo does.”
The other major difference is powder, with the smokeless powder found in bullets today burning two to three times faster than the black powder used in the cartridges at Glenrowan. This means the slugs are moving a lot faster – something that definitely helps penetration and has allowed modern slugs to be drastically scaled down in size without decreasing lethality.
“Judging by what I’ve seen in the past, a pistol round would be completely ineffective”
Ned’s armour does have an inherent advantage though – it’s curved. “All it would take would be a bullet it hit it at a slight angle and it would ricochet off instead of going straight through,” Tom explains.
The other major considerations are distance and the type of ammo itself. A shooting enthusiast himself, Tom reckons he’s fired enough rounds at things comparable to Ned’s suit to have a pretty good idea of what its stopping power might be.
“Judging by what I’ve seen in the past, a pistol round would be completely ineffective,” he says. “Moving up to today’s modern rifle calibres, your normal military full metal jacket .30 calibres – your .303, .308, .30-06s - it would probably stop that. I’m saying probably because one of the things with Ned’s armour was that it was curved. If it was able to hit it straight on from not too far a distance it might go through.”
Other smaller rifle rounds, like the NATO 5.56x45mm, its sporting brother the .223mm Remington, and the Russian 7.62x39mm, are less likely than the .30 calibres of punching through the plating, unless at quite close range. “With just normal jacketed ammo it’s doubtful it’d go through,” Tom says. “You sure as hell would know you’d been hit, but whether it would go through or not is open to conjecture.”
So, not bad eh? A little bit of Aussie-ingenuity still holding its own nearly 150 years later. Not so fast. Tom points out that armour piercing rounds are fairly common for the military weapons of today, and would have no trouble punching through Ned’s armour from all but considerable distances. Common, larger rounds would also make it through, with a .50 cal round penetrating with “a fair amount of ease” while a 20mm “wouldn’t have a problem”.
The other issue, Tom points out, is that the suit weighs 45kgs, meaning whoever’s shooting at you is probably going to have time enough to realise your legs and arms are unprotected before you can waddle behind cover – if you’re lucky enough not to end up trapped on your back like a turtle when the first shot knocks you on your arse.
“A steel plate is good for stopping most small arms,” Tom says. “The thing is that while it will stop them, it will still bowl you over.”
And that’s what seals it for me. While Ned’s armour might stand a fair chance against a lot of modern rounds, when the shooting starts I don’t want anything impeding my ability to run away.